Thursday, 28 August 2014

Your chance to have your say about the State of the Sector

In late 2013, DrugScope carried out the first State of the Sector study on behalf of the Recovery Partnership. Focussing primarily on partnership working, non-treatment related activity, support needs, the impact of recommissioning and, where relevant any funding changes, the resulting report attracted significant interest from policy makers and key stakeholders.

For example, Marcus Roberts, DrugScope’s chief executive, presented the findings to the Inter-ministerial Group on Drugs. Public Health England took a steer from the report in setting their 2014-15 work plan focussing on employment and housing, and the report was picked up by the media, including in a column by Owen Jones in the Independent.

This year, State of the Sector is back, with the survey being launched in a couple of weeks. Whereas in 2013 we limited the scope to adult community and residential services, in 2014 we’re also looking to hear from young people’s services and prison services.

To help us design questionnaires that will hopefully give us a deep understanding of the current issues for the sector, and how it is addressing them, we’ve consulted widely. We’ve spoken to government departments, executive agencies like Public Health England, and – crucially – agencies and service managers with significant experience of providing and managing the types of services we’re keen to hear from.

In addition to the online surveys, learning more – and being able to say more – about the experience of services is crucial, which is why this year, we’ll be carrying out a number of short interviews with service managers from across the country - something that gave real depth to our understanding of the quantitative results of the survey when we did it last year. We’ll also be interviewing three chief executives, as we did last year, to help us present the strategic picture alongside local experience.

How to take part
We’ll be launching three questionnaires in September – one each for adult community and residential, prison services and young people’s services. As we are interested in developing a deep understanding of the circumstances services are facing and how they’re adapting to them, the questionnaires are quite substantial and in places ask for detailed information. To assist you in completing the survey, you might find it useful to have the following to hand:
-              The number of clients accessing your service;
-              Their support needs
-              Details of any changes to your funding and the length of your contract;
-              Any other services you work in partnership with, and
-              To what extent your clients are able to access other specialist services.

One of the reasons last year’s report was so influential was because of the numbers taking part. This year we’re aiming for more participants again.

We’re conscious that some of the information we’re asking for is potentially sensitive, and that some opinions might be contentious. We take confidentiality extremely seriously: all responses will be kept anonymous, and when we include direct quotes in the final report, we’ll take care to ensure that no potentially identifying information is included – in fact, once a quote has been identified for inclusion, that’s the only editing we do. We hope that services will be reassured by this and will be frank in their responses.

We’ll email members, subscribers and other contacts as the surveys go live, or you can check our website and Facebook page. If you would like more information, please contact Paul Anders – . If you would like to read last year’s report, please follow this link:

Friday, 15 August 2014

Rise in benefits sanctions: an incentive or a punishment?

New figures from the Department of Work and Pensions out this week show a sharp increase in the number of people being sanctioned – that is, having their benefits temporarily withdrawn.  (Thanks to my colleague Paul Anders for drawing my attention to them).

The most dramatic increase is among those claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA), which supports people who are unable to work, or need support to work, due to illness or disability. Sanctions are applied (as I'll explain in more detail) where someone has failed to comply with the requirements that come with claiming their benefit.

How much has sanctioning increased?

The figures are stark: in the first quarter of 2013, 3,574 people on ESA were sanctioned; the figure for Q1 of 2014 is 15,955. That’s an increase of 346% – and understandably, this dramatic surge has drawn critical comment from Crisis and others.

The sanctions regime for ESA was significantly toughened in December 2012, meaning claimants could lose more of their allowance for less flexible – and potentially longer – periods of time. Since then, the number of people being sanctioned has steadily increased:

Before we jump to any conclusions, the first thing to look at is the number of claimants. Can the increase be accounted for by greater numbers of people claiming ESA?

The ESA caseload in February 2013 was about 1.6 million. It’s been increasing steadily since the benefit was introduced in late 2008, and in February of this year hit the 2 million mark:

However, that's only an increase of 31% over the year - clearly nowhere near enough to account for the rise in sanctioning during the same time.

So, why are more people being sanctioned?

Everyone claiming ESA is assessed for their ability to work. (This is generally done through Work Capability Assessments, which have come in for criticism, not least from our partner Mind, who are campaigning for them to be improved.) If you’re assessed as being in the “work-related activity” group – DWP jargon meaning you’re able to take steps towards future employment – you’re required to do two things: attend interviews with a Work Programme adviser, and “participate in work-related activity”.

Looking at the data, the proportion of sanctions that are applied for failing to attend an interview is falling, while that for not participating in work-related activity is rising. Usually, the latter will mean failure to meet a “jobseeker’s direction” – a request that might include attending a training course or updating a CV (it’s worth noting that no-one on ESA is required to apply or interview for a job).

So, we know that more people are failing to meet the conditions laid down, beyond the basic requirement to attend an interview. What we don’t know, however, is whether the directions being given are appropriate considering claimants’ health and personal circumstances. If they're not, the increase in sanctions could reflect a failure to recognise the needs of claimants.

Should we be worried?

A recent survey of service providers we carried out jointly with Mind, Homeless Link and Clinks showed that sanctions were of overwhelming concern to organisations working with people experiencing multiple needs – for example, those with combined substance misuse and mental health problems. Combine that with evidence from our partner Homeless Link that sanctions are affecting many vulnerable people – particularly those with mental health and learning difficulties – and we need to ask hard questions about why so many more are being applied.

Over the coming months, Voices from the Frontline – the project I’m running – will be helping service users and professionals to discuss their experience of the benefits system. It’ll be interesting to see what this tells us about the requirements attached to ESA, and whether they’re changing in a way that explains the rise in sanctions.

Few dispute that an effective welfare system needs to incentivise people to move closer to the job market, but it's worth remembering that ESA is designed to help people who will need support (and sometimes quite intensive support) to do that. Given the scale of the increases we're seeing, sanctions for ESA are starting to look less like an incentive and more like a punishment.

Sam Thomas is the programme manager for Voices from the Frontline, a new project to bring the voices of people with multiple needs and those who support them to the heart of the policy debate. He works with a team based across the Making Every Adult Matter coalition (Clinks, DrugScope, Homeless Link and Mind).

You can follow him on Twitter at @iamsamthomas.